It’s 4.30 in the morning, the restaurant fleet is hooked up to various lorries and caravans attached to cars, vans and 4x4s and finally the convoy is ready to leave Blenheim Palace and make the long journey to the capital. Several miles and coffees later we pass the Fuller’s Brewery on the Hogarth roundabout and roll in the grounds of Chiswick House & Gardens. Alas the gates are locked and the key on the way. So naturally an early morning stroll around the grounds is most certainly necessary! Chiswick House is stunning and once served as a hospital and fire station in times past and the grounds known for being one of the first landscaped gardens in England. We also passed the allotments that gardener William and his team of volunteers run to see what they had been growing us since I last came here in February. The garden has erupted with various flowers, fruits and vegetables ready to furnish the oak tables and occupy our cooking pots.
We built the restaurant tent, fed the troop, cleaned, organized and plotted. The menu for the week had to be seasonal, interesting and impressive. As for the locality of the ingredients, it was a matter of using the surrounding businesses and of course the allotments literally meters away from the tent. I was told of a decent local butchers by my friend Dixie who runs the restaurant at Sudeley Castle so we consulted the Macken brothers for some wonderful chickens, 110 of them to be precise with several other fruit and veg shops on the Chiswick High Road. We were gradually getting things together for the week ahead. We crowned the chickens and stuffed, tied and confited the legs after a bit of a salting, made a very cheesy gratin Dauphinoise. Now there is something I have always wanted to try, I haven’t seen it on any menu but I’ve always thought it would be delicious - crab Thermidor. I made a fish stock, reduced it added milk cream and brandy and thickened it with a buerre manier to make a light béchamel, fold in beaten egg white pour onto the crab that has been picked and put back in the shell with gruyere and breadcrumbs on top, bake for 20 mins serve with lemons and Tabasco and there you have it. Not so simple in the end… So this calls for a simple dessert and the time is right for an Eton mess with whipped cream and chewy meringue all whacked on the plate with no real precision - it is what it is!
The first week was gruelling however incredibly rewarding. Adapting to the demands of London was probably the most taxing task. We found ourselves cooking for the major tabloids, magazines, celebrities, chefs, critics and TV presenters something that is difficult to imagine doing but my did it go well! The restaurant itself was fully booked before we got to London so we were kind of prepared for what was to come.
At last our day off came with somewhat of a sense of relief and achievement. To my surprise James the musical director had organized for us to go to the Taste of London show in Regents Park as his Aunt owns Musetti coffee and had a stall there selling the most amazing coffee. There also were a whole host of different food and drink vendors, restaurants and equipment makers showing many different variations of the industry. We left with full bellies to go and see Sarah the trombone player perform on Brick Lane with her old band which was marvellous fun! A lovely evening was had however I was tired and decided to catch the tube home and get some much needed rest for the coming week. Brick Lane, I remember going there as a child to an artist’s hovel with my mother, I had a smoked salmon bagel and lost a tooth. The memory made my instantly crave a bagel but I had left my debit card in some heinous place and only had £1.50 in my pocket. I chose the yellow bagel shop and asked for simply a fresh bagel with cream cheese and then strolled down brick lane towards the tube station. I did not lose a tooth this time.
So week two, what to do! I had not cooked anything rare since we had been on tour and that kind of makes me sad. And I hadn’t eaten any beef which also makes me even more emotional. I decided to satisfy my mood with some topside slow cooked for a very long time after being marinated in treacle, a trick I saw on TV from Tom Kerridge. I love black treacle and it kind of gives the beef a deep marmitey quality and a beautiful colour, served with some Boulanger potatoes and some rainbow chard discovered at the greengrocer. Main course was finished. I also saw in the market some very good-looking tomatoes and we had quite a lot of bread just sitting there and going stale it had to be an Italian style tomato and bread salad. For dessert the elderflower bush budding the last of its flowers for the year was too much to resist. We made a cordial with some lemons and a tiny splash of vinegar to make a jelly and bunged in some lovely summer berries (raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and blueberries) to create one of my favourite trifles we make on tour.
We were treated for our hard work on Monday very kindly with a trip to St Johns restaurant. I was told of St Johns from an Iranian food critic when I was much younger after eating bone marrow for the first time. Nose to tail dining has become very popular recently thanks to Fergus Henderson, a no fuss, economical and simple way of cooking which I love and would much rather eat than the modern rubbish that is thrown in our faces these days. We had deep fried tripe with ketchup, braised oxtail, labs tongue and whole globe artichoke with mustard dressing which really took me back to my childhood. Topped off with some really, really nice wine - I would say it was one of my favourite dining experiences, years in the waiting.
With another very productive week of more than full restaurants and puppet show performances, Chiswick came to a close. I think we just cracked into London something that were dreaming of when we started. The tables were turned over and the ratchets, spanners and sledge hammers found as we started to disassemble the restaurant. It was time to leave.
Till next year Chiswick! We hope.